Betraying the Old Gods

Egypt was one of the oldest and most powerful civilizations in history, but there was one time in Egyptian history when Egypt threatened to collapse from the inside. It was during the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaton that the collapse began; Akhenaton had upset Egypt’s religious balance by doing away with the old gods and installing a monotheistic religion based on the god Aten. Egypt was split in half as the people had to take sides, whether following the weak Pharaoh and honoring Aten or committing treason by worshipping the old gods. During this time Sobek, whose father was a rich land owner, a Ka priest and a follower of Aten, was forced to make the choice between following Aten and betraying the ancient ways of Egypt, or worshipping the old gods and risking his father’s wrath.

Sobek looked toward his father who was placing offerings to Aten on the village altar. As his father raised his arms and began to pray to Aten Sobek thought back to how life had been just a year ago when there had been many shrines and braziers to all the gods, when there had been no Aten. Sobek remembered how his father had prayed so fervently to them, just as he was doing so now for Aten. When the declaration was made by the Pharaoh that Egypt would now worship Aten his father had thought for three days and three nights until, on the morning of the fourth day, he told Sobek to get ready and they went to the vilage. Once there, his father called all the villagers to the square and announced that the old gods were to be forgotten, they would now worship the one god Aten. This announcement gave way to chatter and argument that swept over the crowd like the storm over the desert. When one of the people had the courage, or foolishness, to ask why, Sobek’s father merely said, “What have the old gods done for us?” With that, he turned and started back home. At the edge of the village square he turned and said, “I expect all the shrines to be taken down and the altar cleared and redecorated so it honors Aten and only Aten.” With those last words he and Sobek left the village.

As Sobek walked the memories of all the gods he had grown up with rushed in on him, like the waters of the Nile flooding the land. He remembered how he had always enjoyed the stories about them and their adventures. He remembered praying to Anubis and Osiris when his mother had died. When she had died of the sickness that had taken half the village Sobek felt his father had lost respect for the old gods. Sobek remembered hearing him cursing Anubis and Sekhmet for taking her from him. As Sobek remembered this he wondered what he was going to do. Unlike his father he didn’t blame the gods for the death of his mother. She had died because she had gone to the village to try and help the sick but had caught the illness herself and died a few days later. The entire village had come to her funeral, but Sobek didn’t think father had noticed. This was two years ago, since that day Sobek’s father’s resentment against the old gods had slowly been growing and Sobek suspected that the acceptance of Aten was a way to vent his anger.

Now, as Sobek arrived home with his father, he thought about what his father had said to him before they came to the village. “Sobek, you must accept Aten, he is the one true god and no heretic will be allowed in my house. I will give you until tomorrow to think on this and then you must come to me with your answer.” Sobek now thought about what he would do, would he give up the gods he had been raised to love and respect? If he did and was wrong then what would happen to his mother’s spirit in Osiris’s court? If she was deemed unworthy her heart would be eaten by Amit and she would cease to exist, the thought of that made him feel cold inside. Still, could he betray his father and risk banishment, disownment and disappointment? Sobek’s thoughts churned inside him like a fiery ocean burning his mind with indecision. Sobek thought about who he could talk to, his friends in the village wouldn’t be any help, they couldn’t keep their mouths shut and were always looking for new gossip. His father’s foreman couldn’t be trusted; he was too close to Sobek’s father and the scribes had all converted to Aten. Sobek needed someone who would not be too biased, but who would also not tell his father, or anyone else. Sobek’s mind was a room lined with doors, all locked. Looking around that room Sobek felt trapped. Who could he tell, who could he trust? Then, one of the doors seemed to swing open and, as he approached it, he saw the village priest, the man who in his childhood, had been like an elder brother to him. He couldn’t be happy with Sobek’s father as he had always been a devotee of the old gods. The priest, Sobek was sure, would give him clear and true advice. Sobek left for the village immediately.

When he reached the village people looked at him suspiciously, unsure what the meaning of this visit was.

“Must be something to do with today’s prayers?” one muttered.

“Maybe the Pharaoh is dead and we can go back to the old ways!” laughed another.

“You fool,” said a third. “If the Pharaoh was dead the Ka priest himself would be here, not his son.”

The mutterings continued as Sobek walked purposefully toward the priest’s house near the temple. When Sobek entered the house the priest rose and happily embraced him.

“My dear Sobek it has been too long since you last visited me, it is good to see you again.”

“I have missed you too my friend and I need your help.” Sobek said nervously.

The priest led him to a chair and smiled, “I hope that I have not taken part in some religious infraction that your father has seen fit to punish me for!”
“No, no,” said Sobek. “My father does not know of this visit, indeed I would wish he were not to find out about it at all.”

“Why is that dear friend? What is so secret that even your father cannot know about?” asked the priest.

“I think you already know something about my problem, it is the problem that is occupying the mind of Egypt itself,” replied Sobek.

“Aten?” asked the priest. “Ra forgive me for taking part in those abhorrent rituals.”

So he does still follow the old gods Sobek thought, even though his servitude in the temple forced him to dishonor them; this will make things easier for me to explain. He listened as the young priest continued his tirade about the heresy of Aten and how ridiculous it was to say there was but one god to command all the sky, earth, and underworld. How could one deity handle such an expansive realm?

When the priest had finished Sobek told him about the choice his father had told him to make; either following the old gods, or worshipping Aten. At first the priest asked questions concerning Sobek’s father’s state of mind; did he seem angry or sad? Sobek answered the priest’s questions as best he could. The priest fell silent as Sobek finished by saying, “So what should I do. I don’t think it is right to worship Aten, but if I do not then my father will throw me out and will never see me again.”

“You cannot just forget the old gods, that would be heresy and you would never be forgiven,” exclaimed the priest.

“But surely the gods would understand if I did it to keep my family together,” said Sobek. “I would only honor Aten until he is forgotten and the old gods return. I know my mother would agree with me,” he added tentatively.

But Sobek’s hopes died as the priest patted his shoulder gently.

“I’m afraid the old gods do not accept heresy under any circumstances, your heart would be eaten by Amit the Devourer no matter how untrue your worship of Aten was,” said the priest. “You must worship the old gods Sobek or you will pay dearly for it when you die. I have already stained my heart by helping your father in the rituals of Aten. You have a choice to make that I did not. Let me redeem myself by saving you from a heretic’s fate.”

Sobek put his head in his hands.

“You’re right, I cannot abandon the old gods. I believe that Aten is just a madman’s fantasy. But how am I to explain this to my father? Can I? He believes in Aten so strongly that it would be impossible to sway him from that path.”

The priest gave Sobek a fierce stare.

“The only thing left for you to do is to tell your father,” he said. “There is no other path to take. It is the only thing that will give you peace.”

When Sobek arrived home he lay on his bed and thought about what his mother used to tell him. She had said, “Be true to your heart and you will always follow the right path.” What was being true to his heart though? Was betraying his father really what he had to do? Sobek rolled onto his side, he liked thinking of his mother; it always made him feel close to her, and now he wanted her more than ever. How could he make this decision, and if he did what would be the consequences to his mother in the underworld? He imagined her coming up to him and laying her hand against his forehead like she had done when he was little. He thought of her saying that honesty was a man’s greatest weapon as well as his weakness. He remembered how when he had done something bad she would always tell him, “do what you know is right, do not let yourself be drawn to the easiest path, go down the path that you know is right.” As Sobek remembered all of this he knew what he had to do. Tomorrow he would go to his father and tell him that he could not forget the old gods and accept any punishment his father would give him. It would be nothing compared to the punishments awaiting him in the afterlife.

The next day dawned and Sobek went to find his father in the garden prepared to confess his loyalties. He found his father reading a papyrus scroll. As Sobek approached his father looked up and said, “Come son, sit, for I have wonderful news to share with you.”

Before Sobek could ask what the news was, his father began to speak so quickly that Sobek could hardly keep up.

“Yesterday a man arrived in a chariot; he told me he was a messenger from the great pharaoh himself. He told me that the pharaoh had heard of my devotion to Aten and wanted me to come and be a priest at the royal temple of Aten in the new capital, Amarna.”

As Sobek sat there stunned, his father got up distractedly.

“I must leave right away. I will come back before the year is out to make sure nothing is wrong and to discuss your future.”

After many words of advice and farewells his father mounted a horse. He rode a few paces he turned and then stopped. Sobek ran towards him thinking was his opportunity to speak but his father just called out to a servant: “Make sure my belongings are loaded in the wagon by the end of the day so they will reach me without delay.”

Sobek wondered what he was going to do. He had to tell his father, but how? He could not wait until his father returned. Sobek went back to the house and pulled out his writing materials and slowly, with many pauses to find exactly the right words, he wrote his father a letter explaining his beliefs. Sobek waited for months but no word came. During that time Sobek replaced the altar of Aten with shrines to all the other gods and continued with old rites; the servants joined him silently. Still there was no sign or word from his father. Almost five months later a messenger came to tell Sobek that his father had died from an outbreak of the very same illness that had killed Sobek’s mother; the messenger also said that the cart with his father’s body was on its way to be buried at the family shrine. His dying wish, said the messenger, was that he be brought home to his son for burial with Sobek’s mother.

As an old man Sobek wrote in a later journal: “I never got to talk to my father face to face but I believe he read my letter and understood what I wanted to tell him. I was lucky enough to live long enough to see the fall of Aten and the return of the old gods and I know that my decision not to betray them was the right one. I believe that my parents were both proud of that decision and that I will see them again at the court of Osiris.”

Ansel Burn, Age 14, Grade 9, Packer Collegiate Institute, Silver Key

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